After being arrested by local police, journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were brought to a secret location with hoods over their heads. There, they were deprived of sleep and questioned for days. "They (the police) asked us questions every two hours and we did not have a chance to sleep for three days,” Wa Lone told the court during a hearing earlier on Tuesday.
This is the unfortunate fate of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar. The pair were arrested in December last year for allegedly accepting secret documents from the police in connection to a story they were working on. If convicted under the Official Secrets Act – a colonial law implemented when the British were occupying Myanmar – the two journalists could face up to 14 years in jail.
Prior to the arrests, the two journalists were working on a story about the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The story based on their findings was eventually published by Reuters in February.
The Myanmar government has denied claims that the two journalists were arrested because of their investigations, insisting that they were arrested under the Official Secrets Act. However, the testimonies heard in court say otherwise.
First off, a testimony by Police Captain Moe Yan Naing revealed that a superior had arranged for two policemen to entrap Wa Lone by offering him “secret documents” and then arresting him. This contradicts the prosecution’s story that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested at a routine traffic stop and found to be in possession of the secret documents.
In his testimony, Wa Lone claimed that the police didn’t even focus on the secret documents.
“During the whole interrogation, they didn’t ask with interest about the secret documents found on us, but they probed us about our reporting of Maungdaw, Rakhine,” Wa Lone told the court.
The odd behaviour of the Myanmar government in relation to the case has also raised suspicions. After Captain Moe Yan Naing revealed that the police received orders to entrap the two journalists, his family was ordered to move out of their police housing unit. If found guilty of violating Myanmar’s Police Disciplinary Act, Captain Moe could be sentenced to up to a year in prison.
The unfair treatment of these journalists highlights the lack of press freedom in the country. This is particularly disappointing considering the high expectations of the people of Myanmar when they voted Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy into power in 2016. While repression may not be as bad as during the days of the military junta, the current government’s track record has been extremely disappointing. Myanmar has detained at least 38 journalists since Suu Kyi came to power.
An issue that is perhaps more worrying is the government’s refusal to be held accountable, particularly for its actions against the Rohingya. Ever since the latest round of violence against the Rohingya in August last year, more than 650,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the country, crossing the border into Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Throughout the entire crisis, Myanmar has refused to acknowledge its role in perpetuating the violence nor has it shown any desire to improve the situation of the Rohingya, despite widespread international criticism. The chief of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has even described the violence against the Rohingya community as being “textbook ethnic cleansing”.
The fact that the government of Myanmar has decided to punish two innocent journalists for exposing one of the worst examples of atrocity against the Rohingya is telling. Other incidents have revealed a similar pattern too. Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, was barred from entering the country because her assessments of the Rohingya situation were seen as “biased and unfair.” Recently, a government critic was arrested under the country’s sedition act.
It is clear that the government of Myanmar wants to maintain a monopoly on information and refuses to acknowledge other versions of events as they unfold in the country. This attitude is reflected all the way to the top. In September last year, Aung San Suu Kyi blamed a “huge iceberg of misinformation” as the reason why the Rohingya situation was being blown out of proportion.
While the Myanmar government continues to stifle the truth, it may be all but too late as the world’s attention has already been drawn to the many atrocities against the Rohingya.